White and red
Three hours before the coming of darkness, Oliver unwrapped his master's lute, and took it outside into the sunlight. He held it first one way, then another. As he did so, he smiled, but, at the same time, he was almost crying.
It was a beautiful instrument, made of a dark brown wood, worn smooth by generations of use. It had a faint inlay of golden leaves, but that was its only decoration. Compared with the gaudy instruments made by the craftsmen Eidengard, it was almost plain, but the sound it produced had no equal.
"I do not know its history," Oliver's master had told him, "but I know that it is old. I do not know the names of the bards who have played it, but I know that they lived. Our forefathers heard the song of this lute, and so will our children, and that is all that matters. Play it badly, Oliver, or play it well, but play it. That is all I ask."
But Oliver had not played it. Denied his dream, he had wrapped the lute up in cloth and buried it deep in a chest, and only taken it out to gaze it at, and mourn what was lost. Tonight, he swore, all that would change. Tonight the Kindred would hear the voice of the lute again. Few of them would even notice that the instrument Oliver was playing was different, but Oliver would know, and that was all that mattered.
He wanted to try a tune, but felt almost shy, reluctant even to touch the strings. Holding the lute carefully, he walked into the woods, trying to find a secluded place to practice. After a few steps, though, he realised that he was no longer alone.
"I'm glad to see you up and about again," Adela said. Her smile reached her eyes, and that seemed far more important than her mere words. "How are you feeling?"
Oliver resisted the urge to tuck the lute behind his back. "I'm fine. Hungry, of course, but that's all."
"I kept the king's cloak." Adela held it out to him. There was something else folded in with it, made of a golden ochre cloth. "You should give it to the king, and quickly. It's not right to let him go about the camp looking like a ragamuffin."
"A ragamuffin?" Oliver laughed, then remembered how Elias had been dressed the night before, and knew that she was right. "I will." Their fingers brushed as he touched the cloak, and he wanted to snatch his hand away, and he wanted to stay touching for longer.
"I made him a shirt," Adela said. "I had time enough, what with the two of you lazybones a-bed for so long. The poor boy. You call him your king, but you don't let him dress properly."
"He doesn't want to wear robes," Oliver protested. He felt strangely disappointed that Adela could have misjudged Elias so. "He doesn't want to be set above anyone else."
"I know that," Adela said. "Or I've guessed that, from what I've seen of him. I just wanted to give him something. He seems like a good lad, one of the best." She laughed. "Maybe I feel motherly."
"You're not old enough," Oliver chided her.
"If you say so." She turned to walk away. "Just you give it to him before tonight. Maybe I'll see you soon."
Oliver watched her go. "Maybe you will," he said, a little too late, when she was out of earshot.
It was only an hour before the darkness when Oliver came upon Reynard, crouched all by himself by a small hearth that would soon be extinguished.
"I've never seen it from this side before." Reynard spoke without looking up. "I've always been the one out there, not the one waiting. This is... harder."
"I know." Oliver stood behind him, and did not sit down. "Waiting is always hard."
Reynard looked up at him. "I've never wondered before. I've never asked myself, what if it happens again? I've never had to wait in the darkness, not knowing what it out there, watching us."
"I have," Oliver said quietly. "I do every year."
Reynard turned back to the fire, and poked it with a stick, making it spark. "I don't like waiting."
"Sometimes it's all we can do." Oliver knelt down beside him. "Sometimes we just have to watch things unfold."
"I'm not like that." Reynard prodded the fire again. "Never again. If there's something I can do, I'm doing it." He twisted his arm, showing the white bandage at his wrist. "I have sworn it."
Oliver touched his shoulder. "You can't protect him from everything." He thought about how he had risked his life for Elias, and how right it had felt. "Sometimes people make choices," he said, "that will hurt them, but it will hurt them even more if you stop them from making them."
Reynard flinched away from his touch. "That's not how it should be," he spat. "That's not how it will be." He touched the hilt of his sword. "I have sworn it."
It felt like a dream. In the dwindling light, Oliver went from person to person, and had snatches of conversation here, and snatches there, but never anything complete. He gave Elias the cloak, and Elias smiled and thanked him, but the sorrow was so close to the surface that Oliver could almost touch it. He visited his father, who smiled at him, and said they would talk later. Amalric followed him for a little while, then went away. When the light was almost gone, Oliver saw him hunched over the last of the fires, feathering his arrows, his face very fierce and intent. Then even that fire went out, and there was nothing left.
When the twilight was so deep that people could only be seen as shambling ghosts, Oliver took up the lute and started to sing. He told the story of Alberic, not as he had told it to Elias, but in the way he had always told it, the way his master had told it. He told it right through, and made his hearers weep.
It was the first day of winter. On the first day of the winter, the kingdom had died in blood and treachery. The last light had gone out, and the people had stood in the darkness, waiting for the sign. And there, in the darkness, death had found them.
Will it happen again? Oliver thought. What will the darkness bring this year? Who knew what the others were thinking? Some years, Oliver wept to remember how his forefathers had stood in the darkness, full of hope and expectation, and how a moment later they had been dead. Other years, he only wanted to smile, for they had survived, and the tradition continued unbroken even after so many years.
Today, he only waited. His story done, he placed the lute on the ground, wrapped it up in its cloth, and waited.
No-one said a word. Soon the darkness was complete, and still nobody moved.
And then, just as the waiting became unbearable, someone came.
Oliver stood up. "Who comes?" he called. In the innocent days of the kingdom, the challenge had not been uttered, but the forefathers of the Kindred had learnt all too well that death could approach under the cover of darkness. "Speak," he demanded, when there was no answer. "Who comes to us in our darkness?"
He heard the sound of a sword being drawn from its sheath. Reynard, he thought. Reynard was the first, but others followed him, and soon every man of the Kindred had a sword drawn, except for Oliver himself. No-one could ever forget the lesson of the story Oliver had just told, or ever think themselves safe.
“Death,” a harsh voice replied. “Death comes, and the shedding of blood.”
Oliver stood very still. “What form does the death take?”
“Death, so we might live. Life, so that we might die.”
It had not always been like this. In those long-ago innocent days, nothing but light had come out of the darkness, but those days were gone. The life of the Kindred was harsh, and they knew death intimately. Their winter ceremony had become more brutal, reflecting their life in exile, as well as their life before.
“What do you bring?” Oliver shouted into the darkness. But it was no longer fully dark. A cloud moved away from the full moon, and the clearing turned silver, full of dark figures who stood and waited, and the men who approached from the trees, walking slowly into the midst of the Kindred. Their leader found Oliver and stopped in front of him. He drew his sword and held it out, so the tip was only inches from Oliver’s chest. “I wear the red ribbon, seneschal, and bring you blood."
Oliver sank to his knees, never taking his eyes off the leader’s face. The sword followed him, and, when he tilted his head back, it came closer, seeking his exposed throat. “You may strike,” he whispered.
With a cry, the man sheathed his sword. “I have shed the blood. Mine was the sacrifice tonight, not yours. I wear the red ribbon.”
“But also the white.” Oliver was still on his knees.
“Also the white. The red is blood, and so I come here bathed both in the blood of the one I have killed, and in my own blood, shed in the killing. The white is hope, for, through death, we might live.”
Behind him, the other man walked forward, their kill resting on a litter held high on their shoulders. It was a wild boar, and its capture was hard. If a hunter was not wounded in the hunt, the leader would slash his own arm with his sword. The wound was a symbol. For their cause to survive, the Kindred had to be prepared to suffer and die.
“We bring food for the coming winter,” the leader murmured, as his men laid the litter down. “Our blood has bought you hope. But what do we find when we return? We have hunted for a night and a day, but return to find out homes in darkness.”
Oliver's voice was hoarse as he whispered, “Light will return. We pass through darkness and suffering, and through endless winters. Some of us will never see the spring. But light will return."
Their voices were hardly louder than a breath, for the Kindred were a silenced people. They were forced to live in the darkness, and their tales were never told in the wider world. Only when they were freed from their exile would their ritual words be shouted aloud. If that ever happened, though, the words of the ritual would change. There would be no bloodshed, only joy in the returning of the light.
"When, seneschal?” the leader demanded. “When will the time come?"
Oliver shook his head. "I do not know. But this winter will start with firelight and food. Your sacrifice has bought us that much. And so, in the small hopes of every harsh winter of our exile, our hopes are kept alive.”
"Bid the light come to us, seneschal,” the man breathed. “Do your part, for I have done mine."
Oliver stood up, but, instead of giving the signal he was supposed to give, he looked at Elias. “Do it exactly as you would normally do it”, Elias had urged him, when Oliver had told him about the ceremony. “Pretend I’m not there. Because I haven’t brought hope. I haven’t changed anything, except for the worse.”
“That’s not true,” Oliver had tried to assure him, but Elias had only smiled sadly, and said, “It is. But I’m going to try to make it up to you all. I promise.”
Then you can start by letting them see you tonight, Oliver had wanted to say. Whatever you believe about yourself, they will derive hope from seeing you there. But he knew too well what it was like to be bound by duty, so had merely said, “But you’ll be there?”
Elias had smiled his sad smile. “Of course I will. They’re my people now.” Perhaps he had read something in Oliver’s eyes that had told him what Oliver had wanted to say. “I will stand beside you, if you think they would want that,” he had offered.
“They would,” Oliver had said. Then he had clasped his hands together, and sworn a silent oath. And I will stand beside you, my lord, for as long as you need me. He would never quite be able to forget the way Elias had seemed to him when he had awakened. He would call him Elias to his face, and think of him as a friend, but he would also follow him, and think of him as his king.
As Oliver looked at him, Elias came, stepping forward slowly from the crowd. He was wearing Adela’s shirt and the cloak Oliver had made for him, and his unbroken arm was pressed protectively to his body beneath the black fabric. His skin was silver in the moonlight, but it was always pale. But then, Oliver realised with a start, he had never seen Elias well. He had always been hurt or recovering, tormented or sad. He had never seen him flushed with health, or walking with a spring in his step. He had never seen him laugh with complete abandon, or dance or sing.
I want to see you happy, he swore. He wondered if anyone had sworn that before. Ciaran Morgan cared for his apprentice, but there was a selfishness in his love that always put Elias’s real needs second. The Kindred saw only a king who had come to fulfil their hopes, and not Elias himself. Reynard saw a precious jewel that had to be guarded better next time. Even Elias himself was too accustomed to thinking of himself as nobody, and too used to putting others first. When Oliver had asked him how he liked to spend his time, he had hardly seemed to understand the question, let alone be able to answer it.
I won’t let you forget yourself, he promised. I won’t let you sacrifice everything. I won’t let you make the same mistakes that I did.
And if that meant that the Kindred had to give up their king? Watching Elias walk towards him, he knew the answer. Elias had chosen to save the girl on the scaffold, even if it cost him his life, and Oliver had defended his decision to Reynard. The Kindred had to follow their king's lead.
And this I swear, he vowed, silently. I will stand beside you for as long as you can stand. But, if your suffering becomes too great, I will release you from all your oaths. Perhaps our death is inevitable, but you at least can be saved. Our victory is worth nothing if it only comes through your destruction.
Even as he swore the oath, he was smiling. It felt liberating, as if he was finally taking control of his own future. Nobody had forced him to swear this oath, so silent in the darkness, and nobody would know of it. Ten years ago, he had oaths in public, but this oath seemed far more profound. For ten years, he had been seneschal, reluctantly bound to serve the cause of his king. He was seneschal still, and nothing had changed, but this time his oaths were made by choice, and that meant that everything was different.
"Oliver?" Elias murmured, as he took his place by his side. "What now?"
Oliver raised his hand, palm outwards, then lowered it again. "We wait."
Far into the forest the signal was taken, passed from one hand to the next, in a chain that Oliver had started. At its end, too far away for the light to be seen, a young boy would be standing with a torch, shifting from foot to foot with impatience. It was always a child who performed the duty, for the children of the Kindred were their future and their hope. The light, if it returned, would not be in the days of the old ones, but in the days of the children, or so generations of the Kindred had believed. Now everyone, old and young, were face to face with the living embodiment of their hope, but still they clung to the old tradition.
Very gradually, light came out of the darkness. At first it was a soft orange smear beyond the trees, but it grew closer, making the branches stark and black. As it approached, there was a strange sound, like distant wind in a hundred trees, as the Kindred let out a gasp of awe and relief. This was no mere ritual to them, but a living thing, deeply felt.
The light emerged from the trees, and only now it was close could the watchers see that it was indeed carried by a young boy, and was not a living ball of light, come in response to their need. As a whole people watched, the boy lowered the torch and touched it to the ashes of the old fire, where new branches had been piled up, packed with dry leaves. For a while it looked as if the fire would fail, but then it caught, and flames surged up joyfully.
Oliver spread his arms. "There is light," he cried, for, now there was light, their voices could ring forth without restraint. He looked at them all, and laughed aloud. "Even in suffering, there is hope. Even in the winter, there is light."
Still laughing, he turned to Elias, and, caught by surprise, Elias smiled back.
After the bringing of light, there was music and dance. After the solemnity of the ritual words, there was nothing but merriment. After the ceremony that spoke of hope through suffering, no shadow seemed to remain on the hearts of the Kindred.
“They look so happy,” Elias murmured. "Have they really forgotten?"
He had tried to see signs of the shadow. He had tried to find evidence that they were sad underneath. He tried to see a note of desperation in their merry-making, but there was nothing there to see. They seemed genuinely happy, as if he had not just lost them Albacrist. They laughed and sang, as if he had not just betrayed all their hopes. In an instant, they had gone from solemn to joyous, and he could not understand it.
Elias was standing on the fringes, beside his master, who stood with his arms folded beneath his cloak. All around him, people were dancing and singing and having fun. Children were chanting a song as they played with the skipping rope. He had never played such games as a child, but he wondered what the children would say if he went over to them and asked if he could join in.
A group of youths about his own age were dancing to the tune of a pipe, the young men whirling the laughing women round in gleeful circles. Elias found himself tapping his toe in time to the music, and almost wishing that one of them would come and ask him to dance with them. There was a wildness in the dance that would steal away everything, even memory. It would be like flying. Nothing would exist but the music and the need to keep moving, swept up in the dance.
The music was already trying to take him away. Oliver was at the heart of it, playing like Elias had never heard him play before. He had a different lute from his usual one, and he never seemed to stop singing. His voice, so perfectly flawed, had never been more powerful, switching from soulful songs to playful songs and back again with barely a pause. He held his audience in the palm of his hand, and they wept with him and laughed with him whenever he willed it.
“Have you ever seen anything so barbaric?” Ciaran’s voice cut into his thoughts.
Elias frowned, genuinely puzzled. “Barbaric?”
“Look at them.” Ciaran unfolded his arms just long enough to jab one hand angrily at the scene before him. “Singing bawdy songs. Dancing without restraint. Drinking. And I’ve seen more than one couple slip away into the woods. I’m sure there’s nothing innocent about what they’re doing.”
“No,” Elias agreed. “I don’t suppose there is.”
He looked at them, and saw a young man wrap his arm around a girl’s waist and pull her close. He took a drink, then nuzzled into her neck. She blushed, but Elias could see that she looked as pleased as could be. Smiling, the man raised his head and whispered something, and she blushed again, and let him lead her away. So that’s what it feels like to be loved, Elias thought.
“It’s so different at home, isn’t it?” Ciaran said.
Did he really believe that? Did Ciaran really believe that Greenslade was an idealised place, full of nothing but good? Greenslade had its own festival every spring, called the Festival of the Green Blade. Ciaran attended it every year, but he stood just as he was doing now, a little on the fringes, with his arms folded. He watched it like a benevolent patron, and left early. Many things happened at it that Ciaran never saw, and many happened in front of him, but were apparently not remembered.
Elias had only once stayed after Ciaran had left, and that had been by accident, when Ciaran had gone without telling him. Afterwards, he had realised that he had known the very moment that Ciaran had departed, for that was when the music had grown a little louder, and the merriment more raucous. The people had Greenslade had been restrained by the presence of their Brother, and had only felt free to truly enjoy themselves when he was gone. The songs had been every bit as bawdy as anything the Kindred might sing, and the dancing just as wild. Couples had slipped into the woods there, too, and Elias knew that because he had been asked himself, more than once, though he had never gone.
“What sort of a people would celebrate winter?” Ciaran asked. “Winter, of all things. All that talk of bloodshed and darkness. Barbaric, as I said.”
“They don’t celebrate it.” Elias looked at the firelight, flickering so bravely in the darkness. “They accept it. It happens, and it’s harsh. They’re just trying to find some hope in it.”
“But winter?” Ciaran shook his head. “Greenslade celebrates only spring. That’s how it should be.”
“But they are celebrating spring, in a way,” Elias said. “They know the winter will be hard, but they’re reminding themselves that spring will always come, no matter how hard it gets.” He thought of the things he had seen in Oliver’s mind. “And winters are hard for them, master, far harder than for anyone in Greenslade. Winter is very real for them. Nobody here knows if they will be alive to see the spring. The only way they can get the courage to face it is if they remember that hope survives, even when it looks as if everything’s lost.”
“Why are you making excuses for them?” Ciaran’s voice was tetchy.
Because they’re my people, Elias thought. They’re the only ones I’ve got.
His face tragic, Oliver struck a solemn chord, then launched into a comic song full of innuendo. His audience hooted with laughter, and Elias wanted to smile, but dared not, because he knew Ciaran was watching, and disapproving. Even Reynard was listening to the song. He laughed with the rest of them, but he was not drinking. He kept looking over at Elias, far too often for Elias to feel comfortable.
Sighing, Elias took a sip of his drink. It burnt his throat a little, but felt warm as he swallowed it, though not enough to warm the ice at his heart.
“Are you drinking?” Ciaran asked, incredulously. “Alcohol?”
Elias stiffened. “Only a little.”
Ciaran looked stern. “Brothers don’t drink,” he said.
And Brothers don’t feel strong emotion, Elias thought, but you still broke down and sobbed until I came back, for all that you’re pretending that it never happened.
“Stop it,” Ciaran ordered him. “Don’t let them corrupt you.”
Why? Elias wanted to ask. Why stop? I’m not a Brother any more, and never can be. He had learnt that lesson in the mountains, when he had tried to heal himself with the Shadow. He had made his choice, and he was now wholly of the Kindred, and enchantment was his only magic. The Shadow was still there, but he would never use it. The closest he would ever come to being a Brother again was the black cloak Oliver had made for him, and all that did was remind him of how much he had lost. Oliver had meant well by making it, and Elias would never admit to him wearing it could never be a comfort. It was too like his Brother's cloak to allow him to forget, but too different to allow him to pretend that nothing had changed.
Elias looked into the tankard, swirling the amber liquid around so that it caught the light. "I wonder if drink has the same effect on the enchantment as it does on the Shadow," he said, because he had to say something, and could never say all the things that were in his mind. "Maybe I should ask Oliver. But, then, he'd probably just tell me some long story of an old king who drank too much and turned himself into something stupid." He had started saying it with a laugh, but the laughter ran out half way through.
"You shouldn't drink it, Elias," Ciaran insisted.
Elias tilted his head to one side. His enchantment was strongest when he was working on pure instinct, so perhaps drunkenness would only enhance his powers, but make him even less cautious about what he did. "No," he agreed, at last. He almost poured the drink away, then remembered how hard the Kindred had to struggle for each bite of food, and stopped himself. Planning to give it to someone else later, he crouched and put it against a tree trunk, out of reach of people's feet. "Some people drink to forget," he said, a little wistfully, as he stood up. But I can never forget.
Ciaran looked at him strangely. "There are other ways of forgetting."
As you know well, Elias thought. Ciaran had sobbed and told Elias how much he loved him, but in the morning he just pretended it had never happened. Just as you always do.
"We could go now," Ciaran said, suddenly eager. "Just go, while they're busy carousing. I don't want to see any more of it."
Elias closed his eyes, but he still seemed to see the whirling movements of the dancers, and he could still hear the music. It seemed suddenly mocking in its gaiety. "You said I had until tomorrow," he said. "I wanted this last night. I wanted it to be good. I wanted something to remember."
When he opened his eyes, Ciaran was looking at him. He almost spoke, then stopped, and sighed. "I'm sorry," he said, and his expression seemed sincerely contrite. "I know I've not made it easy for you. I can't help disliking what I see, but..." He sighed. "What do you want to do, Elias? I don't want to ruin your last night."
"Do?" Elias blinked. I want to dance and let the music steal everything away. I want to fly. I want to be a child and just play. I want to forget. I want you to want to stay with me. "Go for a walk," he said. "Close enough to hear the music, but just the two of us."
Ciaran nodded, and Elias thought there was relief in his eyes that Elias had not asked for anything more. "Then that's what we'll do."
Perhaps it wasn't too bad, Ciaran admitted, as he and Elias wove through the crowds. The children playing at their games were innocent enough, and the barrels of alcohol were very few. Even the dancing youths seemed a little less debauched when he got close to them. Their dances were not like the dances in Greenslade, when only the most chaste of touches took place, but the music was far from unpleasant. A little too wild, of course, but with a certain charm. He could see why it might set people's feet tapping, though he himself would never want to dance.
As they passed close to Oliver, the bard looked up and gave a dazzling smile that included both of them. Elias stopped to listen to his song, so Ciaran, following him, had to stop too. It was a touching song to a pleasing tune, and it told of a man who had spent his life chasing the gold at the end of the rainbow, only to find that it was only sunshine, and that he had had it all along, but never realised it. Happiness came from opening your eyes, Oliver was saying, and seeing, not what you can't have, but what you already have. "Because," he sang, "it could be golden."
A nice idea, Ciaran thought, if a little naïve. If nobody strove for the gold at the end of the rainbow, everyone would just wallow in their own misery and mediocrity. There were some things that could not be accepted. Ciaran was not like the Kindred, who could rejoice at the coming of winter. Ciaran would never compromise.
"Come on," Elias urged him, and Ciaran realised that the song was over. He followed his apprentice past another dance, and around a small huddle of children telling ghost stories. Without speaking, they walked past the fire, where Elias snatched up a plate of meat, and headed for the darkness of the forest.
As they reached the edge of the clearing, a shrill voice screamed Elias's name. A moment later, a large puppy crashed into Elias's legs, catching him off balance and sending him flying. Ciaran lunged forward, then realised that Elias was laughing, lying on his back while the puppy licked his face.
A young girl came panting up behind the dog. "Elias," she chided. "Come back here. Bad boy."
Ciaran's eyes widened. "You've named your dog after him?" he roared.
"It's all right, Alicia," Elias said, still on the ground and overwhelmed with joyous puppy. "Don't let Ciaran scare you. You can call him what you like."
The girl looked petulant, and not remotely scared. "Father said I shouldn't, too. But he's Elias, and you're the king. It's not confusing."
"No," Elias laughed. "I don't suppose it is." He pushed at the eager dog, and managed to sit up. "What a handsome dog he is."
The girl swelled with happy pride. "Father gave him to me last week." She looked up at Ciaran. "The king got me a squirrel, but I like dogs better. I want to train him to hunt." She looked over her shoulder, suddenly stricken. "Mother's calling me. I've got to go. I'll come back."
She ran away, but the dog was slow to follow. Elias was stroking its ears, and pressed his face into its side. With a sudden laugh, he wrapped himself around the animal and they rolled on the ground together, both yelping. Then he pulled himself up again, and pointed after the girl. "Go after her," he said, and the dog did, loping off with many a backward look.
Ciaran looked at him, and what he saw almost made him stop breathing. Elias was flushed and his hair was tousled, flopping into his face. He was grinning, and he looked confident, and utterly carefree. This is what he could have been like, Ciaran thought, if things had been different. His childhood had scarred him, the Kindred had tried to tear him apart, and even Ciaran had to admit that he had stunted him, making him grow up with insecurity and doubt, rather than encouraging him to grow. But it will be different, he swore, when we get home again. He hoped many things would be the same as they always were, but some things had to change. He wanted Elias to smile more, and know his own worth. He wanted to see him laugh again, just as he was laughing now.
Elias brushed himself down, his hand moving down his body, all the way to his knees. The golden shirt and the black cloak suited him perfectly, Ciaran realised, and he was easily the most attractive man present, and would be even in Greenslade. For the past few years, Ciaran had been aware of the admiring glances the young women of Greenslade had bestowed on his apprentice, but he had always been more amused by them than anything else, for who could seriously desire a shy little child? Now, looking at Elias, it was as if all the memories and expectations of the last years slipped away. Elias was no longer a frightened boy, but a grown man. If Ciaran had met him tonight for the first time, he would have seen him as an equal, and he would have desired him.
Biting his lip to stifle a gasp, Ciaran turned away. "Ciaran?" Elias called, using his name not his title. Was Elias, too, wondering what it would be like if they were meeting for the first time?
Ciaran could not bring himself to look at him, though part of him wanted to do nothing but gaze at him, and never stop. "I'm fine," he stammered.
Elias settled down with a sigh. "I always wanted a pet dog. Did you know that?"
"I didn't," Ciaran said weakly. "Did you ever tell me?" I'd have bought you one, he wanted to say, but could not. It was very likely that he would not have, even if he had known.
"Even in Conisborough, I wanted one," Elias said. "I just wanted something that would love me, something I could take care of. And, of course, it would grow big and then it would be very loyal, and protect me. Then they'll all leave me alone. I tried to adopt a stray, once. My brother Evan had it killed. I didn't understand at first. I cuddled it and couldn't understand why it didn't lick my face like it always did. It was so cold, and I couldn’t make it warm."
Ciaran sat down beside him. "You've had a sad life, Elias," he said, "but everything's going to change tomorrow."
"Don't talk about tomorrow," Elias urged him, with a note of desperation in his voice. "Just talk to me, master. Did you ever want a pet?"
"I did," Ciaran admitted. "When I was five or six, living in the Basilica. I found a tiny kitten. I've no idea how it came into the gardens, but come into them it did. I found it, and I didn't tell a soul. I used to smuggle it food, until I was caught."
"Nothing. Most people aren't like your family. I was allowed to keep it. But kittens become cats, and cats become independent. She no longer wanted me."
"Poor master," Elias said.
"But I didn't want her," Ciaran admitted. "I was a great lad of six or seven, then, and far too old for such things, or so I thought. I just wanted to play at heroes. I didn't really miss her." He was silent for a while. "But," he admitted, at last, "I think I cried a little, the first time she refused to come when I called, and just strutted away, that treacherous little tail held high in the air."
"Cats are like that."
Ciaran laughed. "As you know from your great experience."
"I know a few." Elias looked at him, all shy innocence. "I've talked to a few in Greenslade over the years."
"Talked?" Ciaran echoed. "Really?" Even Elias's strange link with animals no longer seemed threatening now that Ciaran was going home tomorrow.
"Oh yes." Elias nodded. "We had some very interesting conversations. The things they see. No-one thinks twice about committing indiscretions in front of a cat. They're a veritable hotbed of gossip."
Ciaran just stared at him, and watched as his solemn expression broke into a mischievous smile. "You're teasing me," he said, at last. He hated being teased, but strangely he found himself wanting to laugh. "You don't talk to them at all, do you?"
Still smiling that delectable smile, Elias arched his eyebrow. "Wouldn't you like to know, master?"
The music swelled, and the dancers shrieked, a pair of them plunging out of the set and almost into the place where Elias and Ciaran were sitting. They sobered instantly, apologised, and hurried away, leaving Elias staring a little wistfully after them. He was no longer smiling, and Ciaran found himself wanting to see that smile again, more than anything.
"Come on, Elias." He stood up, and offered Elias his hand. "We're in the way here. Let's have that walk of yours. And," he said, when Elias was standing beside him, "you can tell me more about those cats of yours. Or dogs. Or anything. Anything you like."
Anything, he wanted to say, as long as we're talking. Had they ever had a real conversation before, he wondered. Had they ever just walked along like two friends together, and talked about the things that interested them. Elias had always been his apprentice, who existed only to be nurtured and instructed. He had never bothered to ask him about the things he liked and disliked, and to find out what he thought about things. I don't really know him at all, he thought, sadly. In many ways, they really were strangers, meeting for the first time.
As Elias started to talk, Ciaran smiled to himself. Tomorrow, he thought. Tomorrow he would be home, and this nightmare adventure would be over. Tomorrow he would start thinking about the path the rest of his life would take. He had broken down, and his initial reaction had been to see only what he had lost, and resent Elias for reducing him to such a state, but perhaps it was not entirely bad, not if it allowed him to get to know Elias all over again. Perhaps some of the things he had lost were things that had been holding him back, like strong walls between himself and happiness. Because I have not been happy, he admitted to himself, not for years. He had never trusted anyone, and never had a friend. He had always been alone, even when Elias had trotted at his heels and did his bidding.
But tomorrow he would get to know Elias all over again, and everything would be different. Tomorrow he would be Master Morgan again, secure in Greenslade, in a place where it was safe to examine his feelings and safe to change. And, after that, there would be a thousand tomorrows, each one better than the one before, until the Kindred and their world were only a memory, as faint as a long-healed wound.
As he sang, Oliver became aware that a young boy was sitting cross-legged beside him, devouring his every move. Between songs, Oliver rested his lute on his lap, and turned to him.
The boy blushed. He was about eleven years old, and his name was Hugh. His father was one of Reynard's most trusted fighters. "That’s what I want to do," he admitted.
"Sing?" Oliver asked.
"Be a bard," the boy said, with a strange blend of confidence and shyness. "Like you. I've not got a lute, but I've listened to all your stories. I'm learning them."
Oliver searched his memory, and remembered seeing the boy at the centre of a group of children, holding them rapt with his tale-telling. He had seen it often, but had just dismissed it as something childish, and never once paused to listen. He remembered, too, how often the boy had shadowed him, sitting close to him whenever he told a story or sang a song.
"You want to be a bard?" Oliver repeated. It was the duty of every bard to pass on his skill, to teach all the stories to a new generation. A bard was no mere entertainer, but the keeper of his people's history. The only crime a bard could commit, Oliver's master had been fond of saying, was to stay silent. Yet, for ten years, Oliver had done just that. In his mind, he was no bard, but a seneschal, cruelly robbed of his dream. But no-one else knew the stories that he knew. If he did not pass them on, they would be lost forever. Even the coming of Elias would pass away and be forgotten, for no-one else who had seen it would ever think of putting it into a song or preserving it forever in a story.
Hugh pressed his hands together. "More than anything."
Oliver smiled at him, hiding his guilt. He should have looked for an apprentice years ago, as soon as his own master died. "Would you like me to teach you?"
"Oh yes," Hugh gushed. "It's all I've dreamed of."
Oliver looked over the boy's head, and saw Elias, standing sadly and by himself between two arching trees. The last time he had seen him, he had been talking to Ciaran Morgan, looking happier than Oliver had ever seen him. Sometime since then he had come back alone.
Oliver unfolded his legs, grimacing at the pain of moving them after so long sitting still. "I'll be back soon," he promised. He passed his lute to the boy, who received it with a look of shocked reverence. "Will you take care of this for me? It was my master's, and his master's before him." He stood up, and smiled down at Hugh's breathlessness. He was holding the instrument as if it was a something sacred. "Try the strings if you like," Oliver said gently. "Get a feel for it. After all, one day it might be yours."
"Mine," Hugh breathed. He pressed it solemnly to his heart. "I'll be worthy of it, I promise. I'll learn whatever you teach me." I just want to be like you, his eyes said.
Oliver walked towards Elias. Elias looked up and smiled at him, but Oliver had seen his expression a moment before, and knew that the smile was only a thin veneer over sorrow. "I like the music," Elias said.
"Have you danced?" Oliver asked him.
Elias shook his head. "I've got no-one to dance with. I... I thought I might want to, but no-one's asked me. They don't even want to look at me."
Oliver stood beside Elias and together they surveyed the camp, watching the groups of singers and the energetic sets of dancers. It was true, he realised. They were very aware of Elias, but they always looked away when they caught him looking at them. "I'm sorry," he said. "They're still a little in awe of you, that's all." And perhaps, he thought, Elias was only reinforcing that, by standing on the fringes and watching with such a look of detached sadness on his face. If he joined in, they would doubtless relax around him soon enough.
"Ciaran went to bed," Elias said, looking away. "We'd been talking, but then he said he was tired."
Oliver looked up at the sky. "Well, it is late." As he looked at the moon, a dark cloud passed in front of it. Away from the fire, it seemed colder, and the wind plucked at his cloak.
"He wants to go home tomorrow," Elias said. "He knows I can't go with him, but he still wants to go. He can never be happy here."
"He hasn't tried," Oliver said. He, of all people, knew that, for hadn't he done exactly the same ten years ago?
"Why should he?" Elias demanded hotly. "He never chose to come here. He was dragged away from his home, and stuck here, like a prisoner. Nobody took any notice of him. Reynard openly despised him from the start." He was clenching his fist, growing louder and louder, but then he sighed, and closed his eyes. "Why should he be happy here?"
"You should..." Oliver began, but Elias stopped him, suddenly fierce. "No. I don't want to talk about it." He opened his eyes and stared at the fire, flickering in the growing wind. "You've got a new lute."
"An old one," Oliver said. "My master's. I wasn't using it, and I realised that it was wrong." He wanted Elias to be the first to hear the truth. "Something's changed for me. I think... At last, after ten years dicontented with my lot, I think I truly can be happy."
Elias turned towards him and touched his hand. "I'm so glad, Oliver."
I wish you could do the same, Oliver wanted to say. I hope it will end up being the same way for you.
"And the boy?" Elias said, before Oliver could express his thoughts. The boy was plucking reverently at the lute, but never once took his eyes off Oliver. "Your apprentice? I recognise that adoring look. That's probably how I looked, when I was his age."
Oliver nodded. "Yes. It seems as if I have an apprentice."
"You'll be a good teacher."
They stood in silence for a while, just watching the celebrations. Oliver's fingers itched to return to the music, but he refused to leave Elias. He knew there was nothing he could say to make Elias happier, but he would stay with him for as long as Elias needed him.
"You, my boy, look as if you need to dance," a clear voice said. They both whirled round, and there was Adela, standing brazenly beside Elias, offering him her hand.
Elias looked as if she had challenged him to a fight. "I don't know how," he stammered. "And I can only use one arm."
"Then I will show you how," Adela said patiently. “And who says you need two arms to dance?" She looked at Oliver. "Can you play a nice easy tune? Something for him to learn to." She leant closer and whispered, her breath warm on Oliver's cheek. "Don't worry. I'll be gentle with him."
As Oliver went to reclaim his lute, Adela tugged Elias into the middle of a set of dancers. As he started the tune, and the other players joined in, following his lead, he thought he had never been as happy as he was now, surrounded by his own people, watching his king tentatively begin to smile as the dance absorbed him.
Elias danced a third dance, and a fourth, and a fifth. The first few were with the woman called Adela, but after that he was claimed by a flushed young woman who held him a little closer with every step. For the fifth, he extricated himself from her embrace, and sought out the girl Alicia, and whirled her round and round. When she laughed, so did he. Then he saw Blanche, who had been cast out by her own people because of him, watching sadly from between the trees. He wanted to ask her to dance, to show the Kindred that he bore no grudges, but she walked away when he approached.
“I don’t like what you did to her,” he said, when Oliver joined him. “People make mistakes, but nobody should be alone.” The immediate heat of the dance was leaving him, and he felt very cold. The music had caught him up, and he had been surrounded by laughter, and he had forgotten that he was still not fully well. The wind stirred the hair at the back of his neck, and he shivered, then staggered.
"Come and sit by the fire," Oliver urged him, supporting him with a hand at the small of his back.
He let himself be led. He looked once more for Blanche, but she was gone. He sank down by the fire, and soon he was surrounded by song. One tune finished and the next began. Adela sat beside her and whispered in his ear something that he did not fully hear the first time. "I said," she repeated, "I intend to make Oliver very happy. Do you mind?"
"No," he said, after a moment of surprised silence. He was unused to such directness, but rather a whole layer of unspoken thoughts beneath every word. "As long as that’s what you do. He deserves to be happy."
She squeezed his arm a little tighter. "As do you."
All the while, Oliver never stopped singing, though his voice was hoarse, and many of his listeners had drifted off to bed. It was very late, and increasingly cold. The wind was rising, battering at the fire, so everyone had moved back a bit, out of reach of the darting flames that could lunge out without warning.
He was part of their circle. As soon as Adela had dragged him into the dance, they had opened their arms and made him one of them. He had danced falteringly at first, but had soon discovered that he enjoyed it. Strangers took his hand and swung him round, and he didn't even know their names, but it no longer mattered. He was part of them, and he was not alone.
The song changed, and grew more reflective. Elias twisted round, looking at the silent door to his hut. Was Ciaran asleep, or was he lying awake, listening to the music, and hating it for disturbing his sleep? Was he thinking of Elias at all? Tomorrow he would be going home, and then he would be free to be forget, and free to be happy. For ten years, Elias had never envisaged a future without Ciaran at his side. No matter how closely the Kindred surrounded him, he thought, he would always feel a little alone if his master was not there.
He had wanted one last joyful night, when the music held the memory of the bad things away, and he and Ciaran were friends. For a while, it seemed as if he had been given what he had asked for. The two of them had talked together of so many things, weaving through the trees in the moonlight until they reached the edge of the stream. Ciaran had seemed interested in him, in Elias, without any expectations of the way he ought to be responding. They had been like friends together, and it had been lovely, but, at the same time, Elias had wanted to cry. Why wasn’t it like this before? Why only now, when we can never be like this ever again?
It would have been better, he had found himself thinking, if their last night had been spent in a blaze of argument and recrimination. If things were poisoned between them, then he would have less to mourn, and there would be no happy memories to torment him. But then Ciaran had made his excuses and left, and all Elias had wanted to do was reach for him and drag him back. “I want to talk all night,” he whispered, after Ciaran had gone. “Talk and be together, all the way until tomorrow.” Because maybe, if things were very good between them, Ciaran would change his mind and realise that he could be happy here after all. Or maybe he wouldn’t, but Elias would still have the memories to give him strength in the long years to come.
“Alone,” he whispered. The singing continued, but he no longer felt part of it. They were telling tales of heroes whose names he did not know, and singing of places he had never been. Nearly everyone left around the fire had someone to drape their arms around, and someone to sit close to. Even Adela had removed her arm from his, and was now leaning towards Oliver.
Elias stood up. Instantly, Oliver stopped mid-tune, and looked up at him. He was smiling, but the moment he saw Elias, the smile disappeared.
“I’m going to bed,” Elias told him. The wind whipped his cloak around his body, and he could hear the sound of the trees swaying, even above the raucous festivities. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Oliver still looked concerned, so he crouched down beside him. “I’m fine, Oliver. Please don’t worry about me.”
Turning, he walked through the Kindred, and walked slowly to his hut. He paused at the door long enough to hear Ciaran’s breathing, but he did not go in. When he was sure that Oliver was no longer watching him, he walked into the forest. Leaning against a tree, he slid down to the ground, the harsh bark catching his cloak and dragging it up. “Alone,” he whispered, as he closed his eyes and shivered. He would get through this one night, and he would get through tomorrow, and after that there were just more days and night, all the same, and he would get through them, too. He had to.
It was very late, and only a few dozen people remained, sprawled indolently around the fire, surrounded by the remains of food and merriment. Some of them were more than half asleep, and none of them were watching Oliver. His tunes were quiet, now, meant more for himself than for any listeners who remained. He just let the notes drift this way and that, following the path of his thought, and made no attempt to turn them into a tune.
He felt content. It was such a strange feeling. He was alive, when he could so easily have died. He had spent the evening at the heart of his people, not because he was their seneschal, but because he was their bard, and he knew how to tell the stories they needed to hear. He was still bound by oaths, but they were oaths he had sworn by choice, and willingly. He had an apprentice to pass his knowledge on to, and Adela had sat beside him for over an hour, smiling at him as he played.
The flame guttered in the wind, and almost went out. Perhaps he would keep vigil until morning, he thought, and watch for the first sign of the returning sun. It would be a stupid, youthful thing to do, and would leave him exhausted all the next day, but it seemed right. He would see the festival right through to its end. He would see how the sun still rose, even in the middle of winter.
Then, slowly, he became aware that someone was approaching him. He looked up and saw his father, walking with no-one to guide him.
"I can tell that's you by the playing, Oliver,” his father said. “Is it all over?”
Oliver laid the lute down on his lap. "Almost. Only a few loiterers now."
His father’s hand reached out, and managed to find the top of his head. He ruffled his hair. “I’m glad you’re better. I was with you for most of the time, along with Amalric. I wish I’d been there when you woke up.”
Oliver smiled. “Thank you. And I’m fine, now. No,” he said, with a laugh. “I’m more than fine. Everything seems different now.”
“I’m glad. I have wanted so badly for you to be happy. Ten years ago, it didn’t seem to matter. The cause came first, and our own happiness was of no importance.” His father sighed. “But I’ve come to realise that our cause is nothing unless we are happy. Why struggle so hard to stay alive, if life is nothing but sadness?"
“I am happy,” Oliver told him. “I could have been years ago, I think.”
"I've been listening to your stories," his father said. "Not so close that you could see me, but close enough. I heard you sing. And several people spoke to me. You know what they’re normally like, avoiding me. They were different.”
Oliver was not surprised. "The king has returned. Everything seems brighter to them."
“I wish I could see it,” his father said. “But maybe I did. I felt the brightness of hope when the torch was brought, and I heard how you sang, and how they laughed. I have lived ten years in the darkness, but I will never forget the light.”
“Sit beside me,” Oliver offered. “Let me sing just for you.” His circle of contentment was complete. For ten years, without fully realising it, he had blamed his father for the way his life had gone, and now the resentment was gone. They were father and son together, just as they could have been in kinder times.
“No.” His father shook his head. “I’m an old man now, Oliver, and it’s cold out here. Help me back home, and then let us talk.”
Oliver stood up. It would have been nice to watch the sunrise, but even better to spend a little time with his father. He wanted to talk to everybody, and look at everything with new eyes. There was a whole world out there, just waiting for him to get to know all over again. Things that had been beautiful when he had been discontented could be nothing but dazzling, when seen through the glow of his new happiness.
As he took his father's arm, rain started to fall, splattering heavily on the flames and making the fire gutter. Only when he was standing did Oliver realise just how strong the wind had become. Despite the coming of the light, it was still very much winter.
"I had another vision," his father said, as they walked. "Not a dark one. A vision of you."
"Yes." His father nodded, smiling fondly. "I saw you awaken. I saw the moment when you emerged from the grey place and walked into the light. I saw you laughing. It was wonderful to see. You haven't laughed enough these last few years, I think."
"No." The rain fell heavier, and Oliver started to hurry, though he just wanted to walk like this for hours, his arm linked in with his father's, just talking of good things.
His father tightened his grip on his arm. "You could have died, Oliver, and I don't really know you. We have a dangerous life, we Kindred, and life should never be taken for granted. I want to spend some time with you, before it becomes too late. You, and Amalric, too."
"Then let's start now," Oliver said. "Now, in the middle of the night. Why wait?"
"Why wait?" his father echoed. They had reached the door of his tent, and he groped for the door and pulled it back.
Oliver threw his head back and let the rain drench his cheeks. He had tucked his lute under his cloak, but that was his only concession. He wanted to open his arms and dance in the rain. What was there to be afraid of in a little weather? How could he fear the night, now he knew that the light was always there, if you just knew where to look?
"Oliver," his father chided him. "Come in from the rain."
Still smiling, Oliver ducked his head, and followed his father into the darkness inside.